Archive for July, 2004

A Sound of Thunder

Very frustrating night. I was writing a blog entry late last night about Barack Obama’s speech before the Demcoratic Convention when lightning struck my modem, which means my modem is pretty much toast (by the way, Atlanta readers, if anyone happened to videotape Barack’s speech, I’d love to borrow a copy–I’ll be happy to buy you a beer or a coffee for your trouble).

Fortunately, I was able to figure out how to blog from my computer here at school without any problems, but blogging and commenting may be infrequent, at best, for the next few days.

The good news: I’m going to Urbana-Champaign to visit some friends, which will make for a nice mini-vacation.

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Six Degrees, Blogger Style

Just found out through a rather convoluted chain of events that one of my new colleagues is a blogger. E. David Morgen is the author of Scrivenings, and it looks like we’ll be working together (hopefully with the collaboration of many others) on organizing a September Project event (or two) here in Atlanta. Very cool.

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French Press

A few questions about France:

  1. Does Bill O’Reilly’s French boycott extend to the Tour de France? Is he disappointed with Lance Armstrong for defending his Tour championship?
  2. Has anyone seen the documentary film, Le Monde Selon Bush (The World According to Bush), by French filmmaker, William Karel? It came up recently in a list-serv I follow, and I’d like to see it (so far, no U.S. release date or DVD/VHS info available on IMDB).

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Orwell Rolls in His Grave

In the wake of the controversial Federal Communications Commission decision to allow further media consolidation, several documentary films have emerged to explicitly or implicitly challenge media deregulation. Perhaps the most prominent (and problematic) recent example is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed, which sought to uncover Fox’s distortions of the news. However, I left my screening of Outfoxed somewhat unsatisfied (despite my original positive review). By focusing solely on FoxNews and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, I felt the other Big Media companies (Time-Warner, Viacom, etc) essentially were handed a “get out of jail free” card. I’m well aware that Fox wears its Republican agenda on its sleeve, and it’s necessary to crticize Fox for its distortions, but criticizing FoxNews actually plays the game they want to play, allowing them to spin CNN and network news as “liberal.” In a sense, it gives FoxNews a permanent home field advantage.

In that sense, I found Robert Kane Pappas’s documentary film, Orwell Rolls In His Grave (IMDB) to offer a far more important and powerful critique of media consolidation. Grave is a much more somber, serious film than Outfoxed, and instead of targetting a single media organization, Pappas’s film takes on the media system in general.

Pappas underlines his arguments using concepts taken from George Orwell’s 1984, which I’m embarrassed to note I haven’t read (although I can talk about it in vague terms). Using the Orwellian concept of double-speak, Pappas takes on the language used by many mainstream media outlets to re-frame how audiences will perceive certain news events. Perhaps the best example of this is the sequence in which Pappas traces the coverage of Bush’s repeal of the so-called Death Tax, which was portrayed as effecting middle class families when only the wealthiest 1-2% of all estates pay any tax. However, Bush portrayed the estate tax as the state ransacking small business owners and middle class families of their small savings.

More importantly, he discusses the ability of mainstream news media to bury news events that might be harmful to the interests of the corporation that owns the news network. Grave illustrates this ability using the example of the 1980 version of the “October Surprise,” in which people working for Ronald Reagan’s election team secretly met with the Iranian government to negotiate a delay in the release of American hostages until after Reagan’s election was secured. Pappas also uses Greg Palast’s (blog) important research on the nightmarish election controveries during the 2000 election in Florida (including, but not limited to, the conflict of interest represented by Katherine Harris’s positions as Bush’s campaign manager and Florida’s Secretary of State).

Perhaps the major weakness of the film is that it is a little too soft on Democrats, as this excellent review by Ron Kaufman points out. After all, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which gutted media regulation, was passed on Bill Clinton’s watch, and many Democrats have helped pass legislation that was supported by lobbyists from the National Association of Broadcasters.

The film’s argument that the problem is systemic is effectively supported by interviews with media scholars Mark Crispin Miller and Robert McChesney, as well as Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders and Center for Public Integrity founder Charles Lewis. Orwell Rolls in His Grave is an important film and desreves to be seen more widely. Unfortunately, this film will not likely receive the publicity given to a star vehicle such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or an anti-Fox screed (and I mean that in the best possible way) such as Outfoxed. Orwell is playing right now in a few major cities (including Washington DC’s AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center). I had the good luck of seeing the film at a special screening here in Atlanta organized by Georgia for Democracy, and it was great to connect with others after the movie over coffee, ice cream, and other goodies at Ashtons, where the screening was held.

Update: It’s also worth noting that the Big Networks will only be showing just a few hours of coverage of this year’s political conventions. Talk all you want about cable broadcasts or lower ratings for the conventions, but this is important stuff. Lots of people can’t afford cable or choose not to subscribe. I refuse to pay for cable or satellite TV, and getting access to news about the conventions is going to be more difficult for me as a result. We’re about to elect the leader of the most powerful country on the planet, and a large perceentage of the U.S. population is only going to have access to just 3 or so hours of made-for-TV coverage from each convention. [End rant.]

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The September Project

I’ve been meaning to mention The September Project for several days now ever since learning about it on Michael Bérubé’s blog earlier this week. As Michael points out, The September Project is a great idea:

Free, public discussions about democracy, all to be held in the nation’s public libraries on September 11 (which, this year, falls on a Saturday).

You can find out more information about this project in this Seattle Times article. The questions about citizenship and patriotism raised by The Septmber Project are important, especially in the midst of a war on terrorism and in an election year. According to the Times article, the goals of TSP are to address three big questions: “What do you like about America? What do you think needs to be fixed? What are you going to do about it?”

So far, according to the list of participating venues, there are no libraries in the entire state of Georgia listed as participating in this important event. I’d like to see that change. If anyone would be interested in helping to organize a TSP event here in Atlanta (or if anyone knows of any libraries in the Atlanta area that are participating in TSP), let me know by leaving a comment or by sending me an email at charles[dot]tryon[at]lcc[dot]gatech[dot]edu. I’ll update this entry when I have more information.

Update 7/28: George offers a link to a Chronicle interview with David Silver and Sarah Washburn about the September Project. One point I failed to emphasize before: David and Sarah are encouraging participants to set up voter registration booths. I know that some of my Atlanta readers are voter registration deputies, so if you can attend and bring some registration forms, that would be terrific.

Update 8/3: There are now two September Project events scheduled in Georgia, one at the Dekalb County Library and another at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. David and I are currently working on setting up an event here in Atlanta. More information coming soon.

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Preserving Atlanta

I’ve written fairly often about the ecology of Atlanta, specifically the city’s drive to bulldoze downtown buildings and thereby erase much of its own past. This erasure of a city’s past is certainly not unique to Atlanta (as Mike Davis’s amazing City of Quartz illustrates), but because I’ve called it home for so much of my life, Atlanta’s problems are particulalry interesting for me. Via Jen, I’ve just come across the collectively-authored Bloglanta, which addresses many of these issues.

Of particular interest to me: Robert’s entry on five destroyed and five endangered Atlanta buildings. Robert alludes to the work being done by the Atlanta Preservation Society, but notes that they have little power against some of the city’s real estate giants. I was intrigued to learn that some of the threatened buildings include the Winecoff Hotel (1913), the site of America’s deadliest hotel fire, and the Crawford and Company Building, I. M. Pei’s first commercial project.

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Atlanta Blog MeetUp

Can’t sleep tonight. Too much caffiene too late at night perhaps. Or maybe watching a Billy Bob Thornton movie (IMDB) is giving me nightmares. At any rate, I’d forgotten to mention that I attended the Atlanta Blogger MeetUp on Wednesday night. Really interesting, diverse crowd. Titus Barik, a student here at Georgia Tech, has all the details.

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Academics Anonymous

Collin recently linked to a convergence between/among several academic blogs attempting to come to terms with the public nature of blogging. The conversation grows out of an observation made by Graham Leuschke about the number of academics who blog anonymously, usually out of concern for their professional reputation. Within the comments, I came across ~profgrrrrl’s~ explanation for why she chooses to blog anonymously, and Collin also led me to Lori’s post on “Stepford Blogging,” where she explains the potential risks of blogging while engaged in an academic job search.

Before I begin, I think it’s important to note that lots of people outside the academy maintain anonymous blogs. The desire for anonymity isn’t limited to fearful academics, but is true for people in other professions as well (and Graham acknowledges this point at the end of his post). And there was a valuable discussion of this issue several months ago, during the peak academic job search season, at Invisible Adjunct (I’m too lazy to find it, but I’m happy the archives are still up–thanks IA!). But Collin, Graham, ~profgrrrrl~, and Lori all rase some important questions about how blogging fits within the academic world.

From the very beginning (now about 16 months ago counting my original Blogger blog), I chose not to blog anonymously, and although I’m not sure I really considered the effects of that choice at the time, I am happy with that choice. I know that it has limited what I’m willing to say. You get very few details about my personal life here (some might say that my personal life *has* very few details, but that’s another story). I usually don’t talk about classroom experiences or conversations with students, friends, and colleagues in very much detail (in part, I avoid talking about them simply because these people haven’t asked for their stories, ideas, or anecdotes to be mentioned in a public place). Sometimes that feels like a major loss, and I’ve considered starting another anonymous blog where I can talk about that stuff (and, no, I don’t have a secret blog under another identity). In fact, I’ve really enjoyed reading ~profgrrrrl’s~ blog today because she is able to talk more directly about some of the issues that confront (single thirty-something) academics on a daily basis.

Collin also discusses the “relative comfort” from which he writes:

I don’t have tenure, no, but I’m finishing up my first book, get pretty good teaching evaluations, contribute to the department in a range of ways, and I believe that my colleagues are quite pleased at having hired me. I’m also a big, white man, who hasn’t had to worry about unwanted attention, who is comfortable screening the material that appears here, and who doesn’t really have to worry about the kind of surveillance that some of the comments discussed. In other words, there’s a certain amount of privilege involved with the fact that I can write as myself here, without much fear of official reprisal or risk.

I’m not yet tenure-track, so it’s hard for me to guess how much my comfort level might change if I were to get a tenure-track job, but with the summer quickly coming to an end and this fall’s job market gearing up, I’m beginning to face some of the same questions as Lori (and my own experience is still mildly shaded my own unexpected publicity last fall when my use of blogging in my freshman comp class became topic du jour in the blogosphere).

I’m not sure yet how much my blogging pratcices will change during the next few months. I do know that I’ve been able to network/make connections both professionally and personally using the blog, and that’s something I don’t want to change. I’d also wonder if academic blogs might not have the effect opposite of what most people imagine. Instead of making a candidate appear to be a colleague who is not engaging in “real” scholarship, or someone who is too opinionated, isn’t it equally possible that a blog might convey that a job candidate is committed, friendly, creative, and dynamic? Maybe I’ve already sipped the blogging Kool-Aid, but I know that if I came across a job candidate’s blog while on a search committee, I’d be more interested in that candidate.

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Blogging on CNN

I just learned that CNN and Technorati will be working together to analyze the “political blogosphere” during the Democratic covention in Boston. David Sifry, one of the founders of Tecnorati, will be providing regular commentary on CNN. I’ll be interested to see how this commentary is framed. This news is a few days old, but I’ve been distratced lately (my film students just took their final, and I’m still working through the “Time” issue of Screen). More information on the “bloggers at the convention” story:

Update: The Wired article, by Adam Pennenberg, is quite good. He notes, for example, that less than 1% of the media members in attendance will be bloggers and addresses many of the reasons that mainstream journalists might be threatened by and/or fascinated by the presence of bloggers at the convention.

Now fully awake and caffienated: I think that part of what is missing in the story, however, is the fascination with power that comes across in the spectacle of political conventions, and that fascination will be part of the story when political bloggers find themselves on the convention floor. This is not to suggest that political bloggers will be unable or unwilling to criticize the political spectacle, but instead I think there’s something intriguing about a person who attempts to negotiate their relationship to these images. In fact, I think that blogging the covention may hold a fascination similar to political documentaries such as Robert Downey, Jr’s The Last Party and Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys with George (my review). While Pelosi and Downey are closer to the mainstream media thn most of the bloggers, their narratives tend to downplay that connection, focusing instead on their personal attempts to navigate the American political scene. We connect to the filmmakers on a personal level, seeing the world through their eyes. This is what I think political bloggers may be able to offer their audience. I’m looking forward to following their stories.

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Cinematic and Televisual Time Machines

While doing some unrelated research at Emory’s library this weekend, I came across the most recent issue of the academic film journal, Screen, and the entire issue is devoted to cinema and time (or, more properly, media and time). It looks like a great issue, with lots of heavy hitters, but more importantly, it’s getting me excited about my book project on time-travel films again. So far, I’ve only read Bill Schwarz’s essay, which I may discuss here in detail later, but his discussion of how various media organize human time and historical time seems crucial to my work (as my currently abandoned project on the temporality of blogging suggests).

I think that his comments point to why I find time-travel films and TV shows so interesting. In time-travel films and television, this process of temporal organization is completely on the surface, becomes an issue within the narrative itself. I’m still sorting through some of these revised ideas about time-travel films, so I don’t want to expose them in much more detail here just yet. Even so, I’d like to sort through a few points from the Schwarz essay below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Linklater Symposium

I’ve been writing about Richard Linklater quite often lately. Like many reviewers, I really liked Before Sunset, and Linklater is one of the few filmmakers whose films I can watch multiple times. In fact, I have an annual tradition of watching his Dazed and Confused every school year after the first day of class, even though I find Ben Affleck’s presence in the film rather painful.

So, I’ll no doubt find mysef spending most of an afternoon reading the Summer 2004 issue of reverse shot, which is devoted to Linklater’s career, with an interview, four reviews of Sunset, and essays on each of Linklater’s films. Thanks to the cinetrix for a great find.

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Outfoxed Review

In Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, at least two of the film’s major participants, Lt. John Rushing and Al Jazeera senior producer Sameer Khader, use FOX News as an example of conservative media, unwilling to criticize the US war effort in Iraq. In Noujaim’s film, FOXNews becomes a kind of shorthand for the opposite of what Al Jazeera is doing. I bring up Control Room because it introduces a concept that is picked up, in a much different way, by the recent Robert Greenwald documentary, Outfoxed: both films call into question, in much different ways, the objectivity of the news media images we encounter on a daily basis.

I just returned from one of the Outfoxed house parties in Midtown, where there were over one hundred people in attendance, and as usual, the experience has given me a lot to think about. MoveOn’s ability to orchestrate a media event is still rather impressive. According to MoveOn, approximately 30,000 people around the US attended screenings of Outfoxed. Like other MoveOn events, the screening was in part a tool to persuade people to become more politically active. In this case, people were encouraged to volunteer for one of several media watchdog organizations, including FAIR, Media Matters, Citizens for Media Literacy, and Common Cause. And as I watched the film and the post-film “teleconference,” I tried to read the event as an argument, or series of arguments, and I’m still trying to determine the effectiveness of both the film and the subsequent call to action.

Before I begin my analysis of the film, it’s absolutely crucial to recognize the hard work that Greenwald and his crew, many of whom were volunteers, invested in this project. Putting together a documentary of this scope requires a tremendous amount of labor, and in a seamless final product, that labor can often go unacknowledged and unrecognized. I wish there was a “more visible” way in which that kind of labor could be recognized.

Aesthetically, the film still conforms to the relatively standard documentary tropes of talking heads, illustrative graphics, and evidentiary footage, in this case clips from FOX News shows (with the amount of documentary footage clearly challenging fair use doctrines, which could be one of the most important effects, positively or negatively, of the film). In a conversation after the film, Chris suggested (in conversation) that Outfoxed had a televisual style, and I think he’s right, especially given Greenwald’s “guerilla” approach, which is based on producing a film quickly about what is happening right now. I do think the traces of televisual time and televisual editing remain visible on the film’s style.

The film itself didn’t really show me anything I didn’t know. I was aware of the many studies that showed that FOX News viewers perceive the war in Iraq differently than people who get their news from more reliable news sources (pretty much everyone else). I knew that FOX News uses talking points to hammer home perceptions of public figures (y’know, come to think of it, John Kerry does look French–I’ll bet his real name is Jean). And of course I knew that Bill O’Reilly is a blowhard who shuts down people who articulate liberal or left points of view (although the O’Reilly “shut-up montage” was very funny).

Perhaps the most powerful segment in the film, in my experience, was the section that told the story of Jeremy M. Glick, a signer of the “Not in Our Name” petition, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks. When Glick appeared on O’Reilly’s show, he knew that the Hard Blowing One would treat his views with hostility, and Glick prepared by timing out short soundbites in order to get his message across, which he was able to do with some success. On a subsequent program, O’Reilly suggested that Glick had been “out of control and spewing hatred” and that Glick had claimed that the Bush family “orchestrated” the WTC attacks, both of which were false. The specific example is pretty effective in showing how O’Reilly stifles dissent while also providing some room for optimism (Glick’s ability to put O’Reilly in his place). But, even with this specific example, I still felt that most of the material in the film was relatively familiar to me, at least.

Then again, I’m not sure that the documentary’s specific goal is merely to inform us that FOXNews is bad news, even if it might have that effect on some viewers. I think there’s a larger argument at stake, and I think Outfoxed is aware of that. Greenwald’s larger argument, that FOXNews has changed the discourse throughout the mainstream commercial media, was more significant, but may have been lost in the noise of the “gotcha” sequences. This is where media critiques often seem to run into problems. It’s crucial to establish that FOXNews purposefully uses the mask of objectivity (“fair and balanced”) to promote a conservative agenda, and the film marshals ample evidence to support such a claim. But at the same time, to attack FOX News as partisan, as offering only a partial truth isn’t enough. The second level argument, calling for more public control over the airwaves is more crucial. The gestures towards the debates about media deregulation were helpful here, but I would have liked to see more analysis of the workings of the media (and I realzie that the term “media” in this context is impossibly broad) by people like Bob McChesney. I would have liked a clearer discussion of how to create something closer to a true public sphere, or even whether or not it’s possible to create an “objective” media outlet. In this context, I would have liked a clearer sense of how FOX News is received. I don’t believe that we are all mere ideological dupes who are simply and easily fooled by the messages we receive. I don’t believe the film is suggesting that FOX News viewers are dupes, but media critiques of this sort often fail to acknowledge the possibility for “resistant” or even “negotiated” readings of FOX News.

Finally, I had a difficult time gauging how a regular FOX News watcher might interpret this film. Or someone who didn’t already have a strong opposition to Hannity’s histrionics and O’Reilly’s obtuseness. Many people who have criticized Outfoxed have done so on the level of “objectivity,” commenting that Greenwald did not provide FOX with an adequate time to respond to the charges in the film. All of the employees who discuss FOX’s policies are former employees, and it would be easy to argue that their complaints are mere “sour grapes.” People who believe that FOX News is “fair and balanced” are noticeably absent from the film (a comparison to Control Room which I watched again last night, might be relevant here), and in that sense, I think the film could appear to be painted with the same brush as FOX, albeit with different colors (blue instead of red, I suppose). I do think that these arguments can be effectively countered, especially if we were to empahisize the film’s real argument about the need for more democratic media, but such charges are probably inevitable.

The next question is probably tougher to answer. Will Outfoxed encourage more people to become involved in grassroots media criticism? As I’ve discussed with my rhetoric students, it’s much easier to convince people of the validity of your position than it is to convince them to take action. I do plan on volunteering for at least one of the media organizations. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and it’s something that comes more naturally to me than most other forms of activism, in part because it overlaps so readily with what I do for a living, which is to study film and media and to help students develop the critical tools to do the same. That being said, I couldn’t get a good read on whether or not others at my house party had the same reaction.

No matter what, the film event has provoked me to think, to consider the role of documentary film, to reflect on my own position as a media and film studies scholar, and to seek out forums for discussing these issues. In that regard, I think Outfoxed has been a major success.

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Still Digging in the Archives

Rashomon also directed me to the very cool blog, Life in the Present, which I’ll be checking regularly from now on. Regular visitors to the Library of Congress site may know about their Dream of Flight exhibition commemorating the centennial of flight, but it was new to me. Even cooler was the exhibit, Doodles, Drafts, and Design: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian.

Other interesting links: vintage posters advertising travel to Cuba, San Francisco, and New York, and perhaps my favorite, Kings of New York, a website that documents New York City Graffiti (I like this picture in particular).

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Digging in the Archives

Matt of Rashomon has been digging up some incredibly cool links lately. Two sites well worth checking out: “Silent Ladies & Gents: Photo Galleries of Silent Movie Stars” and this site, featuring World War I military posters from the U.S., Germany, and France among other countries. Nice happy accident for these two very different, but contemporary, sets of images to come across my radar screen at the same time.

I’m also shamelessly going to steal from Rashomon the link to “Look at Me,” a collection of found photographs. It’s a fascinating collection of photographs found at flea markets, on the street, pretty much anywhere:

These photos were either lost, forgotten, or thrown away. The images now are nameless, without connection to the people they show, or the photographer who took them. Maybe someone died and a relative threw away their photographs; maybe someone thought they were trash.

Some of the photos were found on the street. Some were stacked in a box, bought cheap at a flea market. Showing off or embarrassed, smug, sometimes happy, the people in these photos are strangers to us. They can’t help but be interesting, as stories with only an introduction.

The LOOK AT ME project started with a few photos found in a Paris street in 1998. Hopefully, the collection will grow.

The other link in Matt’s entry, to Found Magazine, looks pretty cool, too.

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Friday Top 6 List

In the spirit of Byron’s Top 5 Updates, I give you my Top 6:

  1. I’ve been teaching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing this week. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy DTRT, and it teaches well.
  2. Finally made it to The Tumultuous Fifties Exhibit at the High Museum this week. Many of the images were fairly familiar, but it’s still well worth checking out if you live nearby.
  3. I’ve been watching a lot of classical Hollywood movies lately. In the last week, I’ve watched Out of the Past, Asphalt Jungle, and To Have and Have Not (screenplay by some guy named Faulkner). All highly recommended, especially Asphalt Jungle (love the gritty cinematography). Currently watching Rebel Without a Cause,
  4. I’ve also recently watched Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (IMDB), which I found incredibly powerful. I’d resisted seeing the film because of the Cannes hype, but Van Sant builds tension beautifully. I was hoping to write a full review of the film, but probably won’t get around to it.
  5. Finally, I found John Sayles’ Casa de los Babys (IMDB) to be an impressive film, one of his best (and I really like Sayles). Very cool to see several very talented actresses over 30 playing such interesting characters.
  6. I’ll be catching Outfoxed on Sunday at a MoveOn House Party, and I’m definitely planning to write a full review.

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